Bees make honey. It’s a fact so basic that the most valuable bee, Apis mellifera, is commonly known as the honeybee. Yet there’s no money in honey now that U.S. beekeepers must compete with cheaper imports from abroad. Instead, most large commercial beekeepers these days turn a profit providing pollination services to farmers, predominantly almond growers in the spring. The biggest pollinating event of the year is also one of the largest stresses on the health of U.S. bees.
Environmental activists insist on blaming a new class of pesticide called neonicotinoids for the current decline in bee health. They ignore real-world evidence of the relative safety of “neonics,” such as the fact that honeybees flourish amidst the millions of neonic-treated acres of canola in Britain and western Canada. According to beekeeper and expert Randy Oliver, beekeepers in the American corn belt, where neonics are also widely used, say they’ve never had it so good as far as pesticides are concerned.
Activists also ignore the factors for bee decline that don’t fit in with their worldview. One major reason for fluctuations in bee health is how managing the insects has changed in recent years. Beekeeping has transformed from small-scale honey production to an industrial-scale enterprise servicing the massive growth of pollination-dependent agriculture in the United States. Bee evolution and the art of beekeeping haven’t been able to keep pace, with the result that bees are stressed almost to the breaking point.
This is seen most starkly in the annual almond bloom in California’s Central Valley. The Golden State’s almond growers provide 75-80 percent of the world’s almonds. The nuts are California’s top agricultural export, making $2.83 billion in sales last season. But without pollination, the crop cannot grow. Consequently, every year at the beginning of the almond bloom period, 1.5 million hives – 60 percent of the nation’s total number – are transported to almond orchards to pollinate the nut trees.
Some 800,000 acres of almond groves stretch up and down the length of California’s Central Valley. The area is so massive that the state of California alone can’t support the high numbers of colonies needed to pollinate the crop. Beekeepers come from states as far away as Florida to fulfill lucrative pollination contracts worth $120 to $220 a hive. But what’s good for both almond growers and beekeepers is actually hard on the bees. The trip itself involves vibration and noise, two things bees hate. Then there’s the actual pollination work.
Almond trees begin flowering around Feb. 14 and bloom for about two weeks. The time period is problematic for the pollinating bees, which are just emerging from the cluster they maintain in winter. Having survived on food stored the previous autumn, bees come out in the spring in a weakened state. Their most pressing need is to find good forage to begin building up the next generation in the colony. Yet not only is almond pollen nutritionally inferior as a food source for bees, it’s all that is available in the orchards that early in the year. “There is virtually nothing to forage upon until the trees start blooming,” explains beekeeper Randy Oliver in scientificbeekeeping.com.
Weaker bees are more susceptible to diseases and pathogens, particularly the aptly named Varroa destructor mite. Varroa functions as a sort of HIV, activating a host of other viruses that are harmful to bees. The tiny mites suck bees’ blood (haemolyph) and are almost impossible to eradicate from an infected colony. Even worse, bees who travel from all over the country to pollinate almonds mix with one another, exchanging their various viruses, parasites and infections. These populations then take their unwelcome health threats back to their home states to spread around to local bees.
Last year, some beekeepers chose not to pollinate almonds in order to protect their hives. Should matters get worse, others may hold back as well. This could mean slower growth in the almond industry, possibly raising the cost of almonds. The game isn’t over yet. Bees are evolving to meet the growing numbers of diseases and pests they’ve been hit with in recent years. Better bee management practices are being developed as well. There’s still hope for bee and almond lovers everywhere.
Steve Milloy publishes JunkScience.com.